Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

One of the Nation's Most Ambitious Governors Is the New Guy in Louisiana

Republican Jeff Landry has gotten his way on issues including crime, education and the political operations of the state. His ultimate goal is rewriting the state constitution.

Louisiana Gov. Jeff Landry has swung for the fences in his early months in office
Landry may be the most powerful Louisiana governor in years. (Gage Skidmore via Flickr)
Editor's Note: This article is a part of Governing's Inside Politics newsletter. Sign up here.

One of the Nation's Most Ambitious Governors Is the New Guy in Louisiana: After just a few months as Louisiana’s governor, Jeff Landry has already drawn comparisons to Huey Long, who became a national figure as the state’s hard-charging populist governor nearly a century ago. It’s not hard to see why. The Republican has convinced legislators to overhaul the state’s approach to issues including crime, education and insurance, while strengthening the institutional powers of his office.

“I don’t think it’s any surprise that he’s put out an ambitious agenda,” says Steven Procopio, president of the nonpartisan Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana. “That’s what governors do everywhere — you strike when the iron is hot.”

Landry has benefited from a set of favorable circumstances. He is working with Republican supermajorities in both legislative chambers. That obviously makes it easier to get things done. Earlier this month, for example, legislators decided to shift $717 million out of a revenue stabilization trust fund to spend on transportation, campus facilities and public safety. Legislators had rejected a similar proposal last year under Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards.

When Edwards took office, he inherited a sizable deficit. Landry has no such problem. If the situation is relatively stable, however, he’s made it clear that his intention is to shake things up. One of his few defeats was failing to convince the Legislature to call a convention to rewrite the state constitution for the first time in 50 years. It’s possible he’ll try again in a special session this summer.

But he’s gotten what he’s wanted in terms of creating educational savings accounts, rolling back some of the state’s criminal justice reform policies and gaining the power to appoint directly the chairs of nearly 150 boards and commissions, giving him effective power over higher education institutions, among other things. Legislators also agreed to shield the governor’s personal schedule and official records more carefully from public view and changed the state’s congressional map in a way that punished one of his political opponents.

Landry has been effective enough to receive a negative endorsement of sorts from Mick Jagger, who complained, during the Rolling Stones’ appearance at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival last month, that the governor wants to take the state back to the “stone age.”

Landry has not only been able to work with Republican legislators but capture and direct their pent-up energy and demands. “I think every legislator whose bill was vetoed by the previous governor over the last eight years has reintroduced the bill this year,” says Daniel Erspamer, CEO of the conservative Pelican Institute for Public Policy. “The governor’s willingness to go big early is creating this situation.”

A Stealthy Campaigner: Landry previously served as the state attorney general (AG), routinely suing both Gov. Edwards and the Biden administration. That helped raise his profile, as did endorsements from the state GOP and former President Donald Trump. Landry’s electoral position last year was strong enough that he became one of the contemporary candidates who calculated he didn’t need to show up for most debates.

“Because he was able to consolidate party support so early in the campaign and there wasn’t a real challenge to him even within his party, and not much challenge from the Democrats, he didn’t have to make the case for his candidacy,” says Robert Mann, a political scientist at Louisiana State University.

In the end, Landry took more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary last October. In Louisiana, all candidates appear on the same primary ballot, regardless of party. Winning an outright majority meant Landry was able to avoid a one-on-one runoff matchup. His essential anointment allowed him to run a gauzy campaign that was short on specifics.

“He did run on the perceived uptick in crime, and everybody understood that to mean harsher sentences and rolling back the criminal justice reforms under his predecessor,” says Jan Moller, executive director of Invest in Louisiana, a progressive group. “The other things were not even up for discussion during the campaign. There was no discussion of doing a wholesale rewrite of the state constitution.”

Once in office, Landry surprised even allies with his call for closed-party primaries during a special session in January. State senators balked, although in the end they passed a bill that will create closed primaries for Congress in 2026, along with other selected offices, while in general making it more difficult for candidates who are not Democrats or Republicans to run.

Mann said that experience taught the governor he needed to consult more with lawmakers. He quickly regained momentum with a February special session on crime that led to legislation essentially eliminating parole, treating 17-year-old offenders as adults and stiffening penalties for crimes such as carjacking, while rolling back the Edwards-era initiative to reduce sentences for nonviolent crimes.

A Governor to Work With: Louisiana Republicans only gained their legislative majorities about a dozen years ago. At the time, Republican Bobby Jindal was the governor, but by his second term he was fairly well checked out, nursing presidential ambitions and hamstrung by disastrous budget policies.

Edwards got lucky against a wounded Republican opponent, but he clashed repeatedly with legislators (and Landry as AG). Republicans overrode more of Edwards’ vetoes than those of all the previous governors over the past century combined. This year, legislators passed new restrictions on transgender individuals and a ban on sanctuary cities. Louisiana also became the first state to classify two common abortion pills as dangerous controlled substances, including mifepristone, which the Supreme Court upheld access to on Wednesday.

Democrats, of course, are not happy. They warn that Landry may well step into a big budget hole next year if the Legislature fails to extend a temporary sales tax increase. They also say that Landry has created new costs through both education savings accounts and an expected uptick in incarceration due to tougher crime policies. “You have a math problem already, and that math problem is going to get a lot more severe as time goes on under the current trajectory,” says Moller, of Invest in Louisiana.

Moller admits that while progressives are “terribly alarmed,” people on the other side are delighted by Landry’s performance. He’s been able to deliver quickly on conservative priorities, his ambitions clear not just on top-tier issues such as abortion and crime but on quieter concerns such as the public defenders system.

As Mick Jagger sang long ago, “You can’t always get what you want.” Landry hasn’t gotten everything he’s wanted, but he’s gotten an awful lot. And he’s just getting started. “Absolutely, this alignment of a supermajority and a governor have made things move quickly,” Erspamer says.

Previous Editions
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
From Our Partners